Education feels the burn from sweeping cuts

The inevitable started taking shape last week as public education funding took the hit many expected and school districts feared. The Senate proposed a budget with cuts of $877 million to K-12 schools and $513 million to higher education, while the House version would take away $625 million from K-12 and $638 million from higher education.

No matter what the final total is, the Mercer Island School District will likely see a several million dollar hit to next year’s budget.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn said, following the release of the Senate budget, that he was deeply disappointed in the cuts, cautioning that many districts are on the brink of financial crisis.

“This budget will devastate public education in Washington. Years of study have shown that we aren’t amply funding basic education; further cuts only deepen that chasm. In short, this budget will negatively impact the classrooms of Washington’s one million students,” said Dorn. “At a time when the federal government is urging us to move forward, this budget forces us three steps backwards. The students of Washington deserve better.”

At the March 26 School Board meeting, Superintendent Gary Plano said the district’s principals were instructed to trim between $1 to $2 million dollars from the budget, prior to the district knowing exactly how big the cuts would be. Each school created various plans based on changes in class sizes. Plano said he had heard from several principals that they liked the ability to choose what may be best for the school based on the budget principals adopted by the School Board. The big question hovering around the district is what cuts will mean for teachers and staff.

“Staffing is a very complicated issue. We’re considering a whole array of possibilities,” said Plano. One such possibility includes not renewing staff who currently have one-year teaching contracts. He said the district does not want to lay anyone off.

Another area that the district will continue to monitor is enrollment for next school year. Preliminary enrollment projections indicate that the district may be down by 16.07 FTE next year, equaling a possible loss of $82,600.

“If you look at your kids’ classrooms and describe what you think is basic: extra help for struggling kids, computers, classes of 20-22 for very young grades, more than five periods per high school day, and librarians, you’d be surprised to learn that Washington state does not consider these basic to education, and thus not its paramount duty to fund. This lack of modern definition of education is why schools are fundamentally vulnerable to state budget slashing,” said Stowe Sprague, the Mercer Island PTA vice president for legislation.

The Senate budget reduces I-728 funds by 93 percent, the initiative to reduce class sizes, fund all-day kindergarten and professional development for teachers. The Senate cut drops the per-student allotment from I-728 funds from $458 to $31 per student. The House’s version decreases I-728 by 63 percent, but fills in some of the cut with federal funds. In this plan, the student allocation is $184 for the 2009-2010 school year and $152 in 2010-2011. MISD received $1.8 million in I-728 funds last year.

“Now more than ever, our community — which values education so much — needs to band together to backfill when the state does not and shore up its schools so they can stay on track to providing quality education to our children. Children can’t risk a one-, two- or three-year slump in education; that is a lapse in their education they’ll never recover,” said Sprague.

Public K-12 schools may be taking the hardest hit at the moment, but higher education is not escaping the losses. The House budget allows for a 10 percent tuition hike at four-year universities and a 7 percent increase at community and technical colleges. In the Senate budget, higher education schools across the state would have to contend with over 10,000 fewer enrollment slots over the next several years.

Overall, the proposed education cuts mean up to 3,000 fewer teaching jobs throughout the state.

More information on the specific cuts facing the Mercer Island School District will be available next week.

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